Outgoing county chairman takes parting shots at newest colleagues
Meeting for the first time in 2008 last week, the Dukes County commissioners began the New Year with a new chairman, disagreement on plans to hire a new county manager, and no solution to a projected deficit in the draft budget for the next fiscal year.
Outgoing county commission chairman Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs began last Wednesday's meeting by delivering a pointed blast at the two newest, elected members of the commission for many of the failures and frustrations of last year.
Mr. Strauss accused Tristan Israel of Tisbury and Carlene Gatting of Edgartown of undermining his authority as chairman.
"It was a rigorous year, a difficult year, it's not the year I anticipated," said Mr. Strauss, according to a video recording of the meeting shown by MVTV. "I like each and every one of you on an individual basis, and I admire most of you on an individual basis. When it comes to working as a group, and a group that's charged to perform duties with regard to the public's welfare, it's an entirely different story.
"A couple of you, the two newest members of the commission, seemed to express a feeling, or indicate through their actions, that they either thought they were the chair, or should be, or ought to be."
"You opposed as a group every initiative on my part, in the early part of the year. You opposed suggestions and recommendations that all made it just more difficult to operate, and to find ways to progress," said Mr. Strauss.
He said he felt the board began to act more cohesively later in the year, but said there is still a philosophical division that affects every issue.
Ms. Gatting, an attorney, responded in equally sharp terms.
"I'm really sorry that you've seen my occasional difference of opinion from yours as any kind of an attack on your leadership. It certainly has not been. I just felt that when I started this year, I had a directive from the voters to pursue change, and that the status quo was just not going to work. I felt obligated to pursue change.
"I do differ with you in your thought that heated discussion, debate is in any way unhealthy in the process. In fact, I think it's very important in the process to move forward, and I certainly think we've had our share this year, and I think it's the only way we can move forward," said Ms. Gatting.
Mr. Israel, who is also a Tisbury selectman and a member of the county charter study commission, did not respond to Mr. Strauss's criticisms during the meeting. The commission then elected Leslie Leland chairman. He has served as vice chairman. Commissioner Roger Wey of Oak Bluffs was elected vice-chairman.
The commission discussed a setback in their effort to shift funding of some county services to Island towns, in order to make up a deficit in the 2009 fiscal year budget. The commission has asked each town to place articles on its annual town meeting warrant, asking voters to fund half of the county's rodent control and health programs, and fund all of the county engineering program.
In a meeting on Jan. 7, Edgartown selectmen voted not to place the articles on the town warrant, because they were submitted well after the town's Nov. 20 deadline.
"If Edgartown doesn't put it on the warrant, we are halfway there to killing these things," said Mr. Israel. "They are denying the citizens of the county in Edgartown a chance to weigh in on this issue."
In the assessment formula used to divide the cost of county services, Edgartown pays nearly 34 percent of the total, the largest share of any Island town.
"It doesn't bode well," said Mr. Israel. "One more town would be the death knell."
Mr. Israel suggested the commission put off hiring a new county manager as a way to save money.
"If, instead of spending $75,000 for a manager, we were to consider not having a manager for a short period of time," said Mr. Israel, "to get some kind of consultant, not just accounting, but who could look at our whole system, make some recommendations to us where we might be able to make some changes that would save us money.
"Our backs are against the wall, we don't have a lot of money. I'm not convinced that next November, we're not going to be in the same situation," said Mr. Israel.
Ms. Gatting said she saw value in the idea.
"If any institution looks like it's on the brink of financial failure, I think it's this institution," said Ms. Gatting. "I was so hopeful that a county manager could really come in and move things forward. Right now, it's not looking to me like there's a whole lot to move forward."
Commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark opposed the idea of hiring a consultant instead of a new county manager.
"I don't share the opinion that we're on the brink of financial disaster, for starters," said Mr. Jason. "I think for years we provided services that we could ill afford. If they don't want a rodent control program, and they don't want an engineer, and they don't want a [health] access program, I can live with that, because at least the taxpayers have spoken. I don't wish to impose this on them, and I don't wish to go broke doing a service that they don't want."
The possibility that Vineyard towns will reject the commission's attempt to have towns provide additional funding for some county services hovered over the debate. "If we can't keep these programs," responded Ms. Gatting, "my thought then is what's left for a county manager to manage?"
On a motion by Mr. Israel, the board voted 5-2, with Mr. Israel and Ms. Gatting opposed, to move forward with plans to hire a new county manager.